Intro to Decluttering

Some time ago while working as an executive assistant I coordinated my boss’s move. He was married with a toddler and a very pregnant wife. I arranged for the movers, set up the appointments with the condo, called for internet installation, the usual. On the day of the move I sat around as his old Condo was packed up and put into the moving truck.

After many hours I got a message from my boss that there were two storage areas in the parking garage that also had to be emptied. He forgot about them when we originally brought the movers out for an estimate. I took two of the movers downstairs and we opened up the units to reveal bicycles, bins, and the other sorts of things one stores in a condo garage unit. One of the movers turned to me with a smile on his face.

“This makes more sense,” he said. “It didn’t seem like they had a lot of stuff. I was like, ‘Where are the golf clubs and ski equipment and stuff?’” He laughed.

I’m sure the mover thought nothing of it, but his words really stuck with me. This is what he does for a living, and it was finally making sense to him right as it was becoming astounding for me. Obviously it made sense that a family of three should have more stuff than I do and I don’t begrudge them their possessions, but after hours of packing it already felt like a lot to me. But not to this guy. He knew exactly how much there would be.

Most of us find it easy to justify what we own in aggregate, or justify any item individually. Recently I started a document called “Why I Have Everything I Own.” I turn to it when I need to get in my daily words and don’t have any ideas. I look towards any section of my apartment and list every item. I’ve started with the things that are in and around my desk, and may one day make it through the whole apartment. It’s dull writing and it’s unlikely to produce anything worth sharing, but as an exercise it’s been helpful. It’s easy for me to justify having purses in general, but to justify each individual bag by itself, defending its merits and explaining why none of the other bags could fully replace it – that’s a struggle worth attempting. Every so often I end up throwing a few things in the giveaway bin before I’m done with my word count for the day.

I have this dream of one day owning very few things. It’s a weird dream when you think about it. I could have it right now if I wanted. A couple trips to Goodwill and the dump and I could get down to only what would fit in my car. But that’s not the struggle of course. I’ve been slowly minimizing my belongings for several years now, and I’m starting to hit a wall. It’s easy to get rid of the broken and stupid and useless things in our lives. It’s harder to get rid of the good-but-too-much and if-I-just-wait-long-enough things.

In the coming months I’d like to write more about the art of paring down and my personal struggles with it. It’s more complicated than most people realize, and the problems are more universal than most people think. When I went on vacation in February and told people I did work as a professional organizer, I ended up in a lot of mini-counseling sessions with the people around me. I always thought I’d have to see a clutter problem to fix it, but you can learn a lot from how a person describes their situation. If you have a specific problem you need help with, feel free to leave it in the comments. You’ll help me to know which topics to focus on, and you may just find a solution to your problem!

Things That Don’t Need to Be Done

I’ve been reading about productivity for a long time now. I’m long past the point where every article sounds the same and it feels like there’s no new advice out there. But there’s one piece of advice that I’ve been hearing for a long time, and only recently was I finally ready to listen:

Don’t do things that don’t need to be done.

It sounds stupidly simple. Of course you shouldn’t do things that don’t need to be done. But it’s easy to fool yourself. After all, you can tell yourself exactly what you want to hear.

Stacked PapersI’ve been slowly going through all my old college papers and scanning what I want to keep. It’s a slow process, but we have a commercial scanner at work which makes it a little easier. One day after work I was standing over the copier with my computer, slowly scanning old script drafts. They were for a play I wrote many years ago. I like to keep the scripts from the readings because people write on them and it’s interesting to read comments about my old work.

These scripts are arguably the lowest priority of things worth scanning. These are old drafts, and the play that was actually performed ended up being very different. But they hold a certain sentimental value. And as a writer there is an education to be had from occasionally reading your old work.

The scripts were originally printed landscape and double-sided, so when I ran them through the scanner I ended up with a PDF where every other page was facing the opposite direction. I was clicking around and rotating pages when I realized how utterly unnecessary the task was. I might never look at these files again. And if I do, I’ll be going page by page to read them, and could easily rotate pages then. Plus it’s very possible that if I wait six months they’ll have invented a way to tell the PDF reader to only rotate odd pages, without having to click each individually.

This is what they meant when they said I shouldn’t do things that don’t need to be done. I felt the need to rotate the pages because it was in line with my habits of proper organization and storage. But even I know that I may never open these files again. I can barely justify scanning them. The time spent rotating is a complete waste.

Once I figured this out I realized something even more important: I don’t have to name them either. I was on auto-pilot, assuming it had to be done because that’s usually the case. Most of my files need to be named, but not all. I had eleven scripts that were going to be named after the person who had made the notes, but that information is already written on the first page. I can do it later if I need to. Instead I threw all the files into a single folder labeled “Reading Scripts” and called it a day.

Wasting time on over-organization is a problem of mine, I know that. Most of the time I can justify it because I like organizing and it can be meditative and satisfying. But I don’t like naming files or rotating PDFs. And not everything has to be done. Don’t do things that don’t need to be done.

Decluttering with Nikki

For a while now I’ve been offering my services as a Professional Organizer. At least, that’s what I introduce myself as. In truth, I think Professional Declutterer is more accurate. Because to me it’s not about how you organize the things you have, it’s about getting rid of the things you don’t need.
My sister Nikki asked for my help with a couple big boxes of cables. She’s not a super techie person, so she didn’t know what half of the stuff she had was even for. I once worked for a computer cable manufacturer and as a result I’m pretty good at looking at a box of cords and telling you what everything does.

Nikki had five boxes and bags of various sizes full of old electronics and peripherals. We started sorting and found several categories for immediately removal:

Phones1) Old cell phones
I can accept an argument for a person having at most two cell phones. One phone that they use, and one feature phone that’s kept fully charged in case of emergencies. That’s more than most people need, but it’s defensible. My sister had five old cell phones, including a Blackberry she doesn’t remember ever owning. Many cell phone providers take old phones to be wiped and repurposed for organizations that deal with domestic violence victims. The phones are included in bags that victims can take in case they need a safe and private way to call the police. Nikki and I put together her collection of old phones and chargers for donation.

2) Orphan Chargers
The good and terrible thing about chargers is that they are usually generic. This means you can sometimes charge your phone or camera at a friend’s house if need be, but it also means that once a charger is separated from the intended device there is no way to know what it’s for. Nikki had a large collection of chargers, many identical, and none identifiable. Over the course of the morning we were able to pair a few up, but many were left without a match. It can be difficult to part with such items, since for all you know you still have the things they charge. My solution was to have Nikki label a gallon zip-top bag with the words “Orphan Chargers” and the date. If she ever needs a charger she knows where to look, and if she comes across the bag again in five years and has never opened it, she’ll know it’s time to let them go.

3) Duplicates
There are explanations for how my sister ended up with three routers. There are reasons why she owned eleven coaxial cables. We all end up with duplicates from time to time, and we all have our reasons. The important thing is periodically taking stock and asking a simple question: how many extras will I ever really need? Nikki was already using the best of the three routers for her wireless network, and the other two were so old that they’d likely be obsolete by the time her current one broke. Most things that require coaxial cables come with coaxial cables, so we picked the best two just in case. We went through each duplicate cord and picked the best of the bunch to keep. Nikki has a cord-chewing cat, so some duplicates are reasonable.

4) Boxes
As we were separating the wheat from the chaff in her electronics, I also found that she had a lot of unnecessary boxes. Old box clutter is pretty easy to acquire, since anyone who’s ever had to return something knows not to get rid of the box right away. However once your manufacturer’s warrantee has expired (usually one year after purchase), the box is only worth what it’s worth to you. Some boxes are so perfectly fitted that it’s worth keeping them around just so you can properly pack the item next time you move. Some boxes are easily repurposed for storage of other items. But a box for the box’s sake is just clutter. Every time I saw an old electronics box I asked Nikki the same question: “Have you had this for more than a year?” The answer was always yes, and the box always went away.Cables in Bags

By the end of the day Nikki’s five boxes and bags were down to a single box, with cables organized by function (computer cables in one bag, TV cables in another, etc). But we didn’t stop there. We also fixed up and cleared away unnecessary parts of her TV setup and downsized her remotes. But the real gem of the day for me came when we were taking a lunch break. I asked her a question that had been bugging me for the last half hour.

“Why do you have a shelf of VHS tapes if you don’t own a VCR?”

It honestly hadn’t occurred to her. She’d had most of them for a very long time, probably going back to a time when she did have a VCR hooked up to her TV. We pulled them off the shelf and she gave them away without protest. If anything, she seemed upset that she even had some of them.

“Why do I own The Core?” she asked.

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” I told her, “But I was wondering that myself.”

One of the things I’ve struggled with in trying to build my personal decluttering business is explaining to people why they might need outside help to get rid of their own belongings. I think Nikki is a great example of that. Sometimes we own things for so long, we become blind to them. Sometimes we’re so use to our lives as we’ve built them, we don’t stop to think about how we’ve changed over time. In the hours I’ve spent helping people clear out their homes, I’ve realized that the majority of the time is spent saying goodbye to the people they used to be, and the things that used to matter.

I said Nikki gave away her movies without protest, but that’s not entirely true. She did briefly resist giving away a copy of The Boy Who Could Fly, a drama from 1986. “We used to watch it all the time,” she told me. I couldn’t remember it at all. She started to describe it and realized she didn’t remember much of it either. She shrugged it off and it went in the give-away pile with all the other things. Nikki has been making some big and wonderful changes in her life over the last few years. She needs room in her home for the person she is now and the person she is becoming.

Everything else is just something that used to be important to the person she used to be.

Too Many Mugs

My boyfriend and I have too many mugs. Seriously. Way too many mugs. Even if both of us drank two cups of coffee in the morning we would have too many mugs. We don’t drink coffee at all. Even if we had dinner parties with coffee and desert we would have too many mugs. We don’t have dinner parties.

For the most part the mugs get used when I’m sick and needing to drink a lot of tea. Occasionally my boyfriend will eat ice cream out of a mug. And that’s it. That’s our total mug usage. So how did we get this way?

MugsGrowing up, my parents always had an amazingly eclectic mug collection. They are both coffee drinkers and often had coffee-drinking guests, so it made since. They had mugs from NPR pledge drives and Mother’s and Father’s Days past. They had Mary Engelbreit mugs and Disneyland mugs. I associated those mugs with a well-established home. After all, it must have taken them years to amass such a fine collection. So when I went to the church garage sale when I was about 13, I bought a bunch of mugs. I figured I had to start sometime, and the mugs at the garage sale were so cheap. I must have picked up 10 mugs on the assumption that in five years I would need them.

I didn’t stop at mugs. Inspired by that time our video store was going out of business and my mom and I picked up dozens of VHS tapes for a dollar each, I slowly acquired over 400 DVDs. A well-established home had a large video collection, after all. There’s more. I have posters and candles and more fabric than I imagine I’ll ever use, all in deference to my future self and her established home. She would be so glad to have such a vast movie collection to pull from. She would be overjoyed at being able to pick from cupboard full of mugs every morning.

I wasn’t totally wrong. My future self would have been overjoyed at all of these things – if my future self had turned out exactly like my parents. At thirteen, this wasn’t an insane prediction. I love my parents and they have a wonderful life and home. I loved growing up in that home and will probably throw a joint fit with my sister if they ever try to sell it. And there are ways in which I still want to be like them. But having their home, their family, their stuff – it may not be one of them.

My thirteen-year-old self was planning for the house she loved growing up in, because she figured she’d be raising her own little thirteen-year-olds in it. Even back then I considered staying childless, but the house/husband/kids track was just as real an option. As that option drifts further from my mind, I realize that my home needs to cater to the person I am right now, not the person I may one day want to be. The person I am now doesn’t need so many mugs. She’d rather get her movies off Nexflix – it loads faster than the DVD player anyway. Someday I may change my mind and want the house and the family and the thirteen-year-old girls. But I don’t need to prepare for that just in case. I am confident I will be able to find more mugs. Maybe my parents will give me some.

My Bookmarked Life

I realized recently that on the right side of my browser, next to the bookmarks I actually use, there lived an endless string of forgotten links. They just sort of ran off the edge of the bookmarks bar into oblivion. In theory they’re not causing any harm. They don’t take up space. But they are visual clutter – a constant reminder of yet another part of my life I don’t have a complete grasp on. Since there’s no reason to have useless buttons in front of me, I set to sorting and deleting.

BookmarksThe first few were easy. Some bookmarks were no longer useful, others had to be categorized. I had a link to an online food journal for those times when I need to be intentional about my calorie count. But I don’t usually need it, so I moved it to a Food Reference folder.

I kept clicking and deleting, and before long I found myself falling down a rabbit hole of people I once thought I would be. I found, which is full of useful suggestions like adding bluetooth to your bathroom scale, or building a Wimshurst Machine from plastic bottles. At some point in my life, I envisioned being the sort of person that would “hack” everything. I would make everything myself, adjust everything myself, be the master of my surroundings and everything in them. But from the point of view of the person I am now, I look at this as so much useless junk. I don’t need to add bluetooth to my bathroom scale because I don’t even have a bathroom scale. While I love science, the at-home tinkering aspects just never appealed to me. I was always a bigger fan of the theoretical and astronomical over the practical and mechanical. Making a lightbulb potato is nice, but I’d rather learn how stars are born.

In my Culture section I deleted a lot of links to OpenCulture. Not because they aren’t useful pages, but because I don’t need the link. I know that if I need a list of free eBooks or free university courses or free classic movies that OpenCulture is the place to go. When people talk about the benefits of the internet, they are talking about sites like that. Knowledge, art, history, education – free for all and available at our whim.

There were recipes left over from before I was tracking them in Evernote. There was a link for, apparently from a time when I was going to be an amateur artisan bread maker (I only recently got my bread machine to produce something I actually want to eat).

There was a link to Mac keyboard shortcuts from a time when they weren’t second nature to me. I found an article on making a Get Home Bag from a time before I started keeping in-case-of-volcano shoes and a full first aid kit in my car.

There was a Name That Color website for identifying the code definitions of colors from before I realized such sites are easy to find via Google at any time. Same with the sites full of guitar chords.

Some bookmarks were so old they no longer worked, like an article about Star Wars Burlesque I was saving for the photos of the awesome costumes. However it should come as no surprise that a Google Image Search of “Star Wars Burlesque” accomplishes the same thing ten-fold.

It’s funny how things like this creep up on you. I wouldn’t have thought of myself as having a lot of bookmark clutter, but I did. I’ve always been the kind of person who wants to keep things “just in case,” and that’s the dangerous path bookmarking takes you down. I better keep track of this site, just in case. I might need this information someday. Someday when I’ll act on it. Someday when it interests me enough to pursue. Someday when I care enough to do more than file it away.

The Perfect Pair of Socks

There have been two or three times in my life where I received, as a gift, a pair of fuzzy socks. I don’t just mean fun socks or thick socks, I mean heaven-to-the-touch soft fuzzy goodness. It’s the kind of fabric you want to put up against your cheek like it’s a baby. Happiness in a sock. And I never wore them.

They were too thick to fit into shoes, and I knew that if I wore them by themselves the bottoms would slowly get dirty. The fabric would stretch and they wouldn’t fit so snuggly. The softness would wear off the inside. Eventually they’d develop holes, and I’d lose my delightful socks forever. They wouldn’t be perfect anymore.

I realize that it might sound insane. But I often have this problem with things that I love. I’d rather preserve them than use them. I worry about denting the spine when I read books. I worry about the beater marks on my mixing bowls. I love keeping my possessions in good condition, but sometimes this is to the detriment of my enjoying them. That’s why I never wore those socks.

The epiphany came when I finally got fed up with storing four pairs of fuzzy socks I never wore. I kept moving them from drawer to drawer, always having to find a new hiding place for them. I honestly considered giving them to Goodwill just so I could get them out of the house. They had become clutter. Like any piece of clutter, they were taking up space without being useful.

So I put on a pair.Fuzzy Socks

And they were heavenly.

I began to wear them around the house as slippers. In many ways they were superior to slippers, because I wouldn’t feel the need to kick them off when I snuggled up on the couch or hopped into bed. My feet get so cold so easily, a pair of heavenly soft socks were just what I wanted and needed. They were perfect.

After many enjoyable months I wore holes into the first pair and confidently threw them out after determining that they were beyond repair. And it felt great. Because as silly as it sounds, those socks were a weight on me. Something I had received as a gift but never used. Something that just took up space. And there was no reason. They’re just socks after all.

I’m sure it will be at least another two years before I make my way through the next three pairs of fuzzy socks. But it feels good to see them in use, to know that I’m not just storing them because I can’t fathom throwing out perfectly good socks. Instead I’m using them and making them less than perfect. Which I suppose is the point of all my possessions.

It only took me ten years to figure it out.

Planning and Surprises

When you do something for so long that you’re able to teach it to others, sometimes you end up under the mistaken impression that you’ve got it all figured out. Perhaps you know that there are still things to learn, but you certainly don’t think anything will ever surprise you.

Today, something surprised me.

I’ve been reading, practicing, and loving organization and productivity for a long time. I’ve been planning ahead for a long time. I’ve been making lists for a long time. Yet miraculously, today I managed to plan ahead and make a list in a way that made me outstandingly productive, and I never saw it coming.

I’m making a costume to wear to an upcoming convention, and I’d gotten to the point in my planning that it was time to go to the fabric store and buy supplies. I’ve made many costumes over the years, and for some reason every single one required about eight thousand trips to the store because I forgot to get something the last time. And I hate it. It bothers me to no end. I’m wasting time. I’m wasting gas. Most importantly, my costume creation gets brought to a standstill until I can get to the store to buy one more zipper, one more specialty needle, one more tube of fabric paint.

But today? Today I was the Goddess of Organization. Well, technically, I was the Goddess of Organization last night. That’s when I was making my lists and preliminary sketches and decided my shopping list needed a few more details.

Because in addition to forgetting items outright, I often go to the store only half-knowing what I need. It’s not enough to say I need a black zipper, because that doesn’t tell me if I need a 9-inch zipper or a 24-inch zipper. It’s not enough to say I need ribbon, because I can get a three yard spool or a ten yard spoon or I can take it to the counter and buy it by the yard. And I have a terrible habit of deciding how much fabric to purchase by eyeballing it at the cutting counter. I am horrific when it comes to estimating fabric, so I have no clue why I choose to do it so often. None of that nonsense this time, I decided. My list would include every part of the costume, head to toe.

The strange thing was that rather than feeling empowered at the store, it made me uneasy. I was looking at ribbon and I almost put it back down to come back and buy later, just so I didn’t have to decide between the shiny kind or the matte kind. Why? I suppose it’s because normally I forget those little accent things until I’ve already made the piece they’re accenting. By then it’s clear if the matte or shiny will look better. This time I had to choose based on what I hoped my costume would be like, not on something I knew it already was.

Despite my crises in the ribbon aisle, I did feel good when I got to the cash register. The final price was way less than I expected, probably because I didn’t buy twice as much fabric as I needed. I was excited for the weekend, when I’d get to start up on my costume, when I’d have all the supplies at my fingertips.

I got three paragraphs into this post before it hit me. I forgot the damn thread.

Getting Stuck in Oregon

For the last three years, Evernote has been my friend. Knowing my trip was on the horizon, I made note of every interesting thing I heard about. I’d see a weird tourist attraction on Reddit, and I’d write it down. I’d hear about a historical battleground, and I’d write it down. I’d see a facebook post saying that a particular city was interesting, and I’d write it down.
Evernote on Oregon

I made a note for each state. It was nice being able to gather every idea without needing to check if it was anywhere near my planned route. I was in a constant state of brainstorm. I would figure it all out later.

Now is later.

I opened up my notes on Oregon, thinking that would be a good and easy place to start. There wasn’t much worth seeing in Oregon except the coast as far as I was concerned; it was just the quickest route to California. But about a month ago I came across National Geographic’s Ultimate Road Trips, and had saved links to the two Oregon trips. I opened the article in one tab and a google map in the other and started checking out their proposed routes. The National Geographic trips started to sound pretty interesting, and I began adding other attractions from the rest of my notes. There’s a theater festival in Ashland, one of the world’s best beaches in Bandon according to who or whatever told me that at some point in the last three years.

And that’s how a six hour snooze-fest down I-5 became a 14 hour zig-zag through two national forests.

At first, this was a point of stress. If I could find 14 hours worth of driving in Oregon alone, I was never going to make it across the United States. There was just so much to see, and more importantly so much to miss. Four months wouldn’t be enough time to see the country. I needed years.

I’d read from several others who have gone on similar trips that I shouldn’t over-plan, but going out on such a grand adventure without a plan terrifies me. I like to know where I’m headed, and I hate to waste opportunities. What if I miss something really great because I didn’t plan ahead? But Oregon showed me that I was thinking about it all wrong. The truth is that any opportunities I miss will be because I was already off seeing some other wonderful place.

So thank you Oregon. You proved that there are too many fantastic things to see out there. I can’t possibly miss them all.